How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit

Summary

We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle proclaimed. “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state,” William James wrote. But how, exactly, do we rewire our habits once they have congealed intodaily routines? We already know that it takes more than “willpower.”

Why magic numbers always require a grain of empirical salt.
by Maria Popova Jan. 2, 2014

We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle proclaimed. “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state,” William James wrote. But how, exactly, do we rewire our habits once they have congealed intodaily routines? We already know that it takes more than “willpower.”

When he became interested in how long it takes for us to form or change a habit, psychologist Jeremy Dean found himself bombarded with the same magic answer from popular psychology websites and advice columns: 21 days. And yet, strangely — or perhaps predictably, for the internet — this one-size-fits-all number was being applied to everything fromstarting a running regimen to keeping a diary, but wasn’t backed by any concrete data. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating read on the psychology of self-control — Dean, whose training is in research, explores the actual science of habits through the existing empirical evidence on habit-formation. He cites one influential study that gives a more concrete answer to the elusive question of how long it takes for a new habit to take root:

 

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